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RNIB responds to inquiry on Government response to coronavirus

We have responded to the “Coronavirus: lessons learnt” parliamentary inquiry into the response to the pandemic.

Image: A scenic view of Westminster bridge and the Houses of Parliament on a sunny day.

We’ve offered evidence of the effects coronavirus measures have had on all aspects of blind and partially sighted people’s lives, to the joint inquiry held by the Health and Care Select Committee and the Science and Technology Select Committee. The inquiry is examining the impact and effectiveness of Government action on coronavirus and the advice it has received.

Our response highlights that restrictions introduced due to coronavirus have had a disproportionate impact on blind and partially sighted people. Many of these hardships could have been avoided, if the Government had paid more attention to people disadvantaged by its measures, by consulting with disabled people and their organisations.

This isn’t just hindsight. Along with other organisations, we raised concerns from the early days of the first coronavirus lockdown, and we were ready to advise on steps to avoid unnecessary hardship.

Since then, we’ve campaigned and worked with the Government to mitigate some of these consequences across multiple areas of life and we’ll continue to do so. But disabled people’s organisations should not have to intervene, when the Equality Act 2010 – with its public sector equality duty – already requires the Government to think about whether its policies and decisions will disadvantage disabled people.

Here are summaries of our feedback on key issues:

Social distancing

Social distancing is near-impossible for many blind and partially sighted people, who might be unable to tell where other people are. Visual warnings, or cues – such as posters, queue markers, one-way systems and areas marked off with floor tape – are inaccessible for many. Then for some people whose sight loss might not be obvious, being unable to follow social distancing can lead to challenges by members of the public, or by staff at businesses and services.

As a result, many blind or partially sighted people simply avoided going outdoors. The impact on confidence and wellbeing has been significant, with two in three blind or partially sighted people reporting they felt less independent than before lockdown.

Sighted guiding and lack of clarity in rules

The initial lack of clarity on whether blind or partially sighted people could use a sighted guide from outside their household had made it difficult for many to exercise, access goods and services, visit family members in adult care settings, or socialise when permitted. Many reported feeling isolated, as though they were forced to stay indoors. We repeatedly raised the issue, but it wasn’t until September 2020 that the Government gave sighted guiding in England the go ahead.

Inaccessible information

Critical public health information on coronavirus, including letters sent to households, have been provided in formats inaccessible to blind and partially sighted people. This is despite Equality Act and NHS Accessible Information Standard legal duties requiring accessible communications.

Preferred formats should be routinely and automatically sent to those who need them, at the same time as everyone else. And as one in five people aged 75 and over have sight loss, it is vital that information on coronavirus rules and advice is accessible, giving it the best chance of reaching those at high risk of serious illness.

Similarly, increasing numbers of Government systems are now digital-only, with no alternative routes to access. This shuts out the digitally excluded, including a significant number of blind and partially sighted people.

This basic level of inclusion, to enable all members of society to stay healthy, safe and access support, should be at the heart of Government planning, and not need the intervention of disabled people’s organisations.

Accessibility of COVID-19 testing

Until recently, blind and partially sighted people could not take a COVID-19 test independently. RNIB has worked with the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to make home tests more accessible, but this “retrofitting” meant that they could only be made partially accessible.

Food and essentials

Before coronavirus, many blind and partially sighted people had been registered with supermarkets as disabled customers, with access to priority delivery slots. But after the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) instructed supermarkets to prioritise people classed as extremely clinically vulnerable to coronavirus, we heard from blind and partially sighted people that this service had been withdrawn from them. Many could no longer access an online delivery slot, and were without access to food.

At the same time, those blind and partially sighted people who had previously shopped in person found it difficult or impossible to navigate supermarkets with social distancing measures. Some supermarkets only allowed one adult from a household inside at once, preventing the use of a sighted guide. And social distancing also made it more difficult to seek assistance from staff, who were understandably keen to keep their distance.

At one stage, the RNIB Helpline was getting more than 100 calls a day about food – a topic which usually does not prompt any calls. Our research in early May 2020 found 74 per cent of respondents were concerned about getting access to food, while 21 per cent had had to ration food, impacting both their physical and mental health.

In April 2020, with Visionary, Thomas Pocklington Trust, Vision UK and Guide Dogs, we submitted our joint petition of 22,653 signatures to Defra, calling for priority delivery slots for blind and partially sighted people. Ultimately, RNIB’s Helpline was authorised to refer blind or partially sighted people for priority online delivery slots if they need them.


Local authorities were instructed by the Government to carry out rapid street changes, with the intention of enabling more social distancing and cycling. However, because this happened so quickly, local authorities rarely carried out proper equality impact assessments before introducing changes like "pop-up cycle lanes", or allowing more on-street dining and drinking.

We raised the risk of changes being made without proper consultation directly with the Government in spring 2020. And in some areas these changes have made streets less accessible for previously confident and independent blind and partially sighted people.

Eye health, social care and employment support

We provided further evidence in our response to the inquiry about:

  • The disruption to vital eye clinic monitoring and treatments, low vision services and vision rehabilitation, risking avoidable sight loss, and loss of independence.
  • The impact of COVID-19 on blind and partially sighted employees using the Access to Work scheme.